American secrets and bizarre rules

By Bernd Debusmann
December 17, 2010

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Does a secret stop being a secret when millions of people know it? Yes, says common sense. No, says the U.S. government, whose reaction to the WikiLeaks dump of classified diplomatic cables portrays a bureaucracy inhabiting a logic-free world all of its own.

Writers thinking of producing 21st century novels emulating the works of Franz Kafka are well advised to closely follow Washington’s problems in coming to grips with what kind of information should be open to whom and when.

Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can see the 1,500-odd classified cables released so far by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which holds more than 250,000 messages exchanged between the U.S. Department of State and American embassies around the world. Five news organizations, including the New York Times, have reported on the cables in great detail. But the fact that the information is in the public domain makes no difference to the government’s view of its classified nature.

So, government workers were told, in the first week of the WikiLeaks data dump, that “unauthorized disclosure of classified documents (whether in print, on a blog or on websites) do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents. To the contrary, classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. government authority.”

There’s an authority specifically set up for the declassification of documents, under an executive order President Barack Obama signed a year ago. It’s called the National Declassification Center and it is dealing with a backlog of more than 400 million (yes, 400 million) classified documents. They date back 25 years or more and are kept in cardboard boxes holding 2,500 pages each in storage vaults the size of several football fields at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

The classified-stays-classified view of documents made public has produced an element of anguish among federal employees, including the more than 200,000 who work under the umbrella of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security. One of its workers expressed the vexation of many in an email to Steven Aftergood, a veteran anti-secrecy campaigner who puts out a weekly newsletter, Secrecy News, for the Federation of American Scientists.

The email, from a DHS employee whose work involves dealing with senior foreign officials, noted that “if it is discovered that we have accessed a classified WikiLeaks cable on our personal computers, that will be a security violation. So, my grandmother would be allowed to access the cables, but not me. This seems ludicrous.”

ACCESS DENIED

Not to be outdone by Homeland Security, the U.S. Air Force went a step further this week and blocked employees from using work computers to view the websites of the New York Times and other news organizations that have posted WikiLeaks cables. Those who tried saw “Access Denied: Internet usage is logged and monitored” splashed across their screens, a notice that brings to mind the Chinese government’s efforts to block its citizens from material deemed inappropriate.

Denying access to information that virtually everyone else in the world can see has been accompanied by warnings to students at several colleges to refrain from commenting on WikiLeaks and its cables on social websites such as Facebook or Twitter. Doing so might jeopardize their chances of future employment with the government, said messages from the schools’ offices of career services.

Self-censorship in the country that prides itself on its commitment to free speech and openness, or prudent advice in a climate of post-September 11 obsession with secrecy?

One of the casualties of WikiLeaks and the government’s fierce reaction to them will almost certainly be the effort Obama launched a year ago to curb America’s secrecy inflation. The executive order that created the National Declassification Center also laid out in 13,000 words and great detail guidelines on classifying information. One of the novel features of the order was that classified documents must include the name of the person who classified them. That was meant to curb such excesses as slapping “secret” labels on, for example, summaries of foreign press reports.

The opening paragraph of the order, dated December 29, 2009, says: “Our democratic principles require that the American people be informed of the activities of their Government. Also, our Nation’s progress depends on the free flow of information both within the Government and to the American people.”

How does that square with the present attempts to prevent large numbers of Americans from looking at information available to much of the rest of the world?

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

39 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Great article. It is indeed stupid for thousands of U.S. military personnel to be banned access to information that their kids can browse on their iphones.

Posted by jordiortegatv | Report as abusive

Bernd, I see the problem as ongoing not static. When the other shoe drops, hundreds of thousands of cables will further enlighten the world. Do we agree that open dialogue is helpful? So if by open we mean one-sided, where will the “truth” take us? This constant attack on the U.S. and it’s less than perfect diplomacy will ultimately leave the world a more dangerous place. I for one look forward to the coming day when the world needs US again but we have been hamstrung and demoralized to the point we simply take a pass. Really, why bother with attempting to bailout countries whose constant banter is to discredit, humililate or destroy US. I say good enough for you. Take your UN/save the world mentality to a new home. We’re all out of givashit.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

When do the interests of the American people get involved, as opposed to individuals who are employed by our Government? Is it proper to use Governmental secrecy laws to hide misconduct? Ever? Does the Government owe the people the truth? Does it owe them anything at all? Or are we merely a herd of sheep? If that is the case, why is one master better than another? Why should we care at all?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

@pHenry

I really couldn’t agree anymore. I find coworkers don’t have much to say when I bring up the point that they are siding with America’s enemies and those who truly hate America when they are championing Wikileaks intelligence dumps as a form of freedom of speech. When you ally yourself with America’s enemies, do you not stop to think why you are doing so?

I am not one to blindly follow the government, however, I know that there is a need for classified documents. I also know that the point of this is too make the US government look ominous, make the US troops look ominous, and to paint us in a bad light to both our allies and our enemies. It emboldens are enemies, weakens are ties with our friends, and Americans are applauding this?

This isn’t like Abu Gharib, things of that sort need to be exposed, this is a dump of US intelligence, and private US communications with foreign embasies. It should be classified information, it is definitely the dissemenation of stolen data, and there will be new international laws that deal explicitly with this. I will say this, not a single nation would want their classified information leaked in this way, and there will be a consensus by all nations to keep this from happening again.

Posted by Trooth | Report as abusive

This is what happens when you hop into bed with the dragon. The dragon’s scales rub off!

Posted by plubber | Report as abusive

There’s a much simpler explanation for the Air Force’s blocking of Wikileaks. That is that the quickest way to leak documents to them is by visiting their website on the computer that has access to the information they’d be leaking. If they have to take the information off the computer and put it on another before they can leak it, i would imagine it is easier to track them down. As for the government’s stance on the info still being classified, its probably mostly a form of protest against the leaks, but it could also be that they don’t want employees talking about the cables and accidentally leaking something that isn’t in them.

Posted by sfgfan10 | Report as abusive

I keep having this vision of some guy laughing maniacally whilst running down the street chasing a uniformed military dude with a copy of the New York Times and the military guy screaming NO NO I CAN’T LOOK!
It is so farcical as to be humorous. But then again, military people really aren’t supposed to be doing any thinking anyhow.
When we no longer have fuel or can afford fuel to heat our homes, which is coming fast, the government can hand us out the documents for burning.

Posted by Pete9 | Report as abusive

An issue that no one seems to want to face is if millions of US personnel had access to this secret data, then so called enemies would have got their hands on it years ago.
The foreign intelligence agencies would have easily penetrated such an insecure network.
Now that it has become public and the authorities have been forced to act Putin won’t be getting his weekly update.
The only people who didn’t know that BP has a track record of blowouts were the public.
Most of the Government outrage is an attempt to hide their incompetence.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

The Great Farce

Back in 2003
They searched for WMD
Possessed by Mr. Hussein
Who it was rumored was insane

For the ruse had been told
And it now must be sold
To all those far and wide
In case they can’t decide

It could be said
They had the Fed
To justify the cause
It was going to be shock and awes

By 2006
They were in a fix
An ostrich in the sand
It was now terror and strife through out the land

Tenet fell on his sword
For the benefit of “His Lord”
“His Lord” carried on ranting “It is no sin”
And another fine mess there’re in

For now in steps Kim
He is not so dim
He can really spook
With his nuke

And let us not forget that in 2005
The Mullahs tried 235
So they’ll not be out done
As they too want some fun

Now Osama
Enjoys the drama
He laughs out loud
As there will be many a shroud

And it will come to pass
That it was a farce
To treat Saddam as a fool
Because it is he who should have been left to rule.

Anon
October 16, 2006

Posted by Capemargo | Report as abusive

I guess from now on all foreign diplomats in the world will no longer have to send tedious messages back and forth to the US State Department asking for critical information, since all they have to do is log on the Wikileaks website and get the latest unabridged non-politicized updates.

Posted by Mmmoke | Report as abusive

Why does a minority of less than 25% of the US population think that only they are “America”? What level of ignorant arrogance does it take to seize control of the Government through corrupt anti-democratic practices and then define America’s enemies as their personal religious enemies? I would remind everyone employed by the USA that they took an oath to defend the country against domestic as well as foreign enemies. If you make yourself an enemy of the majority of the American people you violate that oath.

Wake up and follow the will of the people. We do not unending war in the Middle East so that aggressive religious construction projects can be built with our social benefit money. If you do not know that it is you who are not an American, not us. Give up your citizenship in this country and join the country you so fervently love. And get your hands out of my pockets!

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

If there’s any current news out there other than Wiki-leaked info, then it has been buried under Wiki-leaks.
I don’t know why but in 1999 I was looking forward to a 21st century of high-tech futurism… instead we seem to have landed back in the medieval world, replete with religious nutters, lords, monarchs, peasants and serfs.
Democracy is dead. Is it too late to revive it?

Posted by Tiu | Report as abusive

@Trooth – Your mentality of “America’s Enemies” is absolutely sickening and disgusting, and that sort of “us versus them” mentality is what brings you down to ignorance. In many cases, power is abused by the bigger body and justice is thrown aside. The goal should be to aid justice, not your own country and patriotism (which is a garbage concept in this modern world). Loyalty of mankind should lie in truth, justice & equal opportunities for all, and if justice means that the US government be brought down a notch from their ominous powers, so be it. If justice means your soldiers being bombed by the Iraqi freedom fighters for the unlawful invasion, so be it. I’ll choose justice, not the hypocrisy of the Western Civilization that operates for greed & power with no regards to human beings in other nations while attempting to keep these deeds away from its own citizens to create a masked world in which America is doing some sort of favour to the whole world.

Posted by jeffkee | Report as abusive

Truth needs no secrecy while lies need manifold secrecies is the fact!

Posted by vksaini | Report as abusive

Does this also apply to the print edition of the NYT? Must TSA employees shield their eyes when walking past an airport news stand?

No more lazy Sundays with the weekend edition spread about? Although, judging from the TSA employees I have
had interaction with, I suspect that the NYT is well above their reading comprehension level anyway.

Posted by ThisIsBob | Report as abusive

>> I for one look forward to the coming day when the world needs US again

Posted by nostone | Report as abusive

Wikileaks is a necessary thing to protect us from our own and other governments, both of which prefer to lie, simply out of habit if for no other reason.

Posted by scrumble | Report as abusive

What would you do if you were the US and wanted to thwart this leaking and future leaking? Espionage is answered with counter-espionage. So what do you do? You let their strength be their weakness. Sort of like you throw screens and run draws against a really aggressive defense. One of wikileaks strengths is its relative anonymity as an organization and loose connections. Another is that it is lightweight with low overhead and few fulltime workers. Wouldn’t it be possible to infiltrate and seed such an organization with misinformation to the point where the information coming out of the organization wouldn’t be trusted nearly as much as it is now? By having existing people with access to classified material control themselves and not confirm or deny the validity of classified info in the public sphere you are setting up such an operation. Remember, in counter-espionage, defeating the enemy is destoying them in many ways. Maybe the people bailing Julian Assange out of jail and keeping him on the English manor are US agents – sort of an intricate good-cop/bad-cop play. Maybe some of the information coming out of wikileaks now is bad info that has been salted into the system. Come on people. Think who you are dealing with. Contrary to popular belief, military intelligence is not an oxymoron. Maybe the whole thing is an intricate ruse and Bradley Manning was turned as a double-agent early on and info was salted into the system to keep the US enemies off guard. Maybe some of the stuff coming out is what the US govt wants you to think is true but it isn’t really true. Sure a fair amount of it is accurate but really key pieces that influence enemies is not. Maybe some of the helpers in Afghanistan were not really helpers but were known Taliban collaboratives made to look like helpers of NATO. Then the Taliban goes in and tortures their own true believers thinking they are NATO spies. Don’t be upset with the US govt when word leaks out that all of what you thought was in Wikileaks isn’t true. Marvel at their counter-espionage abilities and your naivete.

Posted by Laughter | Report as abusive

Bernd, it’s worse than you may know. I’ve been out of that game for decades, but in the old days, Defense Intelligence used to produce a morning briefing cable to senior commands, call the DIA Intel Bulletin (IntBul). It only had low level classification, Confidential, if I recall correctly. Major point though, it only contained items from sources like AP, UPI, and, in no small measure, Reuters.

If they have continued that practice, it is totally possible that this article, since it may now include this post, and this post discusses sources and methods, could now be classified.

Weird? You bet. Non-stop.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

ARJTurgot2 said “It only had low level classification, Confidential, if I recall correctly. Major point though, it only contained items from sources like AP, UPI, and, in no small measure, Reuters”

Come one people. Do you believe everything you read in the press? Goodness gracious. There is tons of stuff out there that is just plain bogus either through sloppy journalism or outright misinformation.

And if the DIA produced a daily summary of info from major media saying that they believe that certain articles are reliable and relative, the fact that they believed these articles (and not others) were reliable and relevant could cause the classification of the summary to be confidential. In other words, you don’t want to let your enemies know that you believe these articles (and not others) are reliable and relevant, often as not, based on the more secretive info that you have in your back pocket.

Posted by Laughter | Report as abusive

@ARJTurgot2: The mind boggles…

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

Imagination and Fear create far greater security problems than run amok notes by people who need to prove their value by sending classified messages. For me, I think the US has a much higher opinion of itself than is actually there, and we do need to get real.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

Here’s a provocative thought: if they quoted Reuters stories intact, do they owe you royalty payments? This, multiple stories, daily, 365, for DECADES.

Wikileaks could be a treasure trove for you guys, at multiple levels.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

This is a vain attempt to cover up the true problem. So many of these communications lack professionalism and any attempt at understanding the cultures the U.S. confronts. Hence, the messages exhaust themselves in anecdotes, superficialities and ignorance. No wonder that the Dayton accord has been the only successful U.S. foreign policy initiative of note since WWII (we may have to see what happens in Dafur), and now the man who made that possible is no more. State needs a profound makeover.

Posted by PeterMelzer | Report as abusive

The only harm that may come from these out of date documents is that they may embarrass some people in the diplomatic community. We may see their true and candid opinion of one another and the countries in which they were posted. We will see the true face of our intentions and I for one am not going to be suddenly swept into the hands of fundamentalists of any stripe because I have seen the character or opinion of our own leadership classes. I might have very little respect for anyone after trying to fish through them. But the few I’ve read suggest they aren’t fools.

If the war was ever really about the elusive and casually pursued OBL ( and it is a screaming admission that he is loved and admired in the ME and that no amount of bribery on anyone’s part will get him don’t we all know by now! and i find that very upsetting because he is a free lance mass murderer. The ME is taking the country for a ride and making sure it gets paid handsomely for it.

But this is a world where the government has the power to control so much of our lives and can sell that control to the people with the biggest money. And they are so lovingly concerned for our safety that there is now nebulous guarding of our own personal information and activities, constant surveillance in many public places and the last ten years have bred and industry of spies that would make Saddam jealous – if only he had bought cameras instead of relying on the human variety.

I truly hope that leaks start springing up in every government. That somehow they must all reveal their true intentions. Chinese, Russian, British, French, Indian, you name it. Are they the best and brightest or merely the highest bidders or merely the hounds with the best pedigrees?

If the uber classes want to be the top of the heap, the rest of us peasants should have a chance to see if they really are worth their gigantic costs and benefits packages. It’s getting very cozy and plush at the top and rather spare and cold at the bottom.

One doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds but most of us do not want to be forced into a position where the hands that feed designed the situation to insure theirs are the only hands from which one can feed.

Nations can be greedy selfish pigs. Just like so many of their citizens.

And besides, these documents are so much classier than Oprah confessions and so much more has ridden on them. If the state dept was so worried about them they would have been encrypted. What do we think they are doing now.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Whether a “secret” is true or not depends on the source. If everyone “knows” a rumor it doesn’t mean it is true. If someone who knows truth says a rumor is true it then that gives it weight. Therefore a person with a real secret is not allowed to say whether the rumor is true or false – just common sense!

Posted by vacdepman | Report as abusive

Americans, you need to think carefully about what you claim to be your Constitutional rights, and while doing so consider whether you want to ban free speech or allow it, to allow guns for all in all circumstances or allow people to shoot you. Too many posts indicate that there is much hypocrisy in the American psyche, get real and grow up, the world may yet need/want you again.

Posted by iSpy | Report as abusive

@Sinbad1: Actually, the number of personnel who can access classified information is nowhere near that high. Clearance investigations are expensive, especially for the higher levels, and you absolutely will not get it if you can’t prove that you need it for your job and can be trusted with it… which is the kicker. Someone just showed the world that their country placed its confidence in them, and they abused it.

Even though the leaker didn’t sell the documents to a foreign guy in a trenchcoat, even though it was more of a diplomatic embarrassment than a military crisis, it’s still a situation that needs serious resolution. This incident just ruffled feathers, but unless something changes, it could lead to people dying.

Posted by fledermaus | Report as abusive

Thank you for a great article. If the United States is able to extradict Assange to the United States there will be an outcry that will drown out the the Limbaugh,
Palin, Beck followers.

The press as a whole will turn against the Government as we have been lied to for years and years.

Time to pull back the curtain that has hidden lies that have sent our citizens in harms way.

Posted by ghhugh | Report as abusive

Historically, the main reason for all persons with a security classification to continue treating compromised security information as if it were not compromised was to not give further credence to the compromised classified information. I don’t think that this applies here.

There is so much compromised and non-compromised material and so many people have access to this info on a complicated “need to know” basis that the situation is very complex. If these people are allowed to treat compromised classified material as unclassified, they will make mistakes and some still non-compromised classified material will be compromised. Government officials really have no choice but to publicize and enforce these seemingly stupid regulations. Also, the only practical approach was to warn all civilian and military personnel, and not just those with security clearences.

Posted by gAnton | Report as abusive

Get real! People don’t hate the USA. They detest American Foreign policy. That is a huge Difference! The American people can now take back control from their Government! It is clear that the US Government is not only incompetent ( losing secret classified documents) but dishonest too. The cables reveal the double talk, lies and manipulation. The Press is nothing more but the extension of the Dept of Defense- no free press any more.
Just look at CNN, BBC and the subconscious manipulation of headline phrases. It is embarrassing that it had to be an Australian who brought light to the corruption and incompetence.
Just read how Embassy staff encourages foreign politicians to brush things under the carpet about illegal US activities, then they send the message back to Washington: “Right now, it would be to our advantage to stroke him a lot…”
No wonder that they do not want the military read this stuff. They would probably go: “gee!!, did my boss say that? He told me something completely different.!”
Politicians talk about transparency and accountability. There we have it ! They can no longer mislead the public. If 300 million people agree on Twitter to stop the Banks ravaging the economy, divert the funds from America’s war machine and give it back to the people, America can be great again!

Posted by renceD | Report as abusive

Well, yes, the rule forbidding them to access what the whole world already has sounds quite bizarre. But I have learned something working with various companies involved with security: sometimes the right thing to do really does sound bizarre at first glance, even second glance.

In this case, I believe the Air Force etc. are makding the right rule, but neither Debusmann nor many of us understand its true purpose. Clearly, that purpose cannot be to contain the leak: the cat is already out of the bag. So what, then, could the real purpose be? Well, the Air Force has not been very forthcoming about that, have they?It could be something as vacuous as simply an attempt to keep a certain amount of discipline over their employees. It could be an attempt to keep secure computers secure — always a difficult task with surprising measure that must be taken.

But one thing is certain: the people who promulgated the rule KNOW the cat is already out of the bag. They are not trying to contain the leak with this rule.

Posted by Syllogizer | Report as abusive

Common sense agrees with me. Clearly Mr Bernd shows this. His sense, at least in regards to this issue is anti-secrecy. To support a world with governments of absolute transparency, is a dead monkey. Certainly, based on what humans have shown themselves to be so far. So the issue is the how and why of censorship. If what was classified becomes public, support it? Of course not. Even if it should be made public, for whatever reason – due process should be followed.

Posted by wallmoss81 | Report as abusive

If it was Chinese cables that were exposed, the US and the state dept. would have awarded the highest prize to wikileaks for exercising ” freedom of information” The US is only paying for it’s hypocrisy. Why condemn China for blocking access to certain websites and the foolishly block your officials from accessing what accessible to even the dead? What do hope to achieve by that? By the way I totally agree with the idea of certain communications remaining private or classified.

Posted by Bmormoni | Report as abusive

Well I think most of us do not possess the capability to read between the lines and the said article advocates my opinion. The timing, environment and the nature of information leaked by Wikileaks is worth noticing if one needs to be able to understand why such an information, which is not relevant for general public has been released to the massess.

It seems from the nature, content and ofcourse the context inwhich the informatoni is released that the said has been done under the blessing of the Obama as Government as wikileaks itself seems and remains non-chalent on the same. can any body explain what purpose did this leak serve to Wikileaks itself? The answer is zero. This release only helped US government putting a gulf in relationships among various muslim governments.

We should try to read between the lines.

Posted by Zia-ul-Haq | Report as abusive

GOVERNMENT – redefining stupid daily!

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

PFC Manning had no idea about the context in which this information was utilized, interpreted or employed. There is no way to estimate the extent to which he has set back diplomatic efforts and foreign relations. His behavior was truly outrageous!

He broke several laws. He and Assange have no appreciation whatever regarding sensitive information used to develop relationships. Simply put, it’s impossible to measure the damage. In fact, we will never know entirely the political harm, not to mention the likelihood that individual lives were ruined if not destroyed altogether. I’ll never understand how someone could be admired or applauded for such a heinous act.

He has released the names of enemy informants, people who are helping us to defeat an enemy and bring stability to a region. Think those people are going to stay alive? Think that anyone else is going to trust us to keep informants safe? What about information concerning a bribe our country paid to an Afghan warlord? Might look like a nasty scandal from the outside, of course, but these relationships prevent a LOT of bloodshed — until it becomes public knowledge and the whole cycle starts up again.

We give our military and diplomats some freedom to keep secrets. Without some level of secrecy, they simply cannot do their jobs. Assange, in his quest to bring governmental transparency (i.e., make himself famous), will forget that information can be a deadly and unpredictable weapon.

I realize these things are wasted on all you radical leftists. You all are so much smarter than the president, our military leaders and our diplomatic personnel.

Posted by SGK12 | Report as abusive

“Self-censorship in the country that prides itself on its commitment to free speech and openness…?”

In the U.S. in 2011 we still enjoy free speech in matters related to elections and other topics pertaining to political succession. With respect to our own government’s operations, there is no right of free speech. In any given case, one who speaks up on such topics may escape prosecution, but (as far as I know) there is no statute or structure that aids such them in the long term.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive

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